Localism in the Time of Lockdown
Nobody told me there'd be days like these...
Localism: The stain on the soul of surfing, or the most natural way - the only way - human beings have ever divvied up scarce resources without guns, germs, and steel.
Pick your poison.
I'll lay my cards on the table in a minute, but before the existential debate rages we need to note a more concrete fact. For the first time in any surf culture since the Hawaiian ali'i ruled surfing with an iron fist, large chunks of surfers in this country now live under localism by decree.
Where you live is where you surf. No travel outside the council boundary is allowed for NSW and Vicco surfers. QLD has more freedom but can't conduct the normal cross border raids into NSW. WA is essentially in home detention, imprisoned in their vast state.
Everyone will have a different take on this, and this is mine. But first, a quick caveat. Please don't take anything below as gloating. As the cost of living skyrockets on the Far North Coast of NSW I've been hanging on by my fingernails to a coastal abode. But for the Grace of God etc etc I would be in Penrith or Coraki or Grafton. Forced inland by the cost of housing, landlocked by government decree.
Unlike the USA, Europe, South Africa, and New Zealand, Australia's pandemic response has always allowed surfing. As far as viral transmission is concerned it's probably the safest place to be. The joy in the water that surfing produces has taken on a different dimension as movement between urban centres and regions is diminished. In short, crowds are down in bush nooks and smaller coastal towns. Not extinguished but reduced, sometimes to levels not seen since the 70's. Filmmaker Joylon Hoff's restoration of old 16mm film highlighted a Golden Age of Innocence in Australian surfing, with comments below stating we would never see conditions like that again in our lifetimes.
Well, we have.
In one of the strangest ironies of the pandemic, one of the unforeseen consequences of the so-called 'police state' has been a return to a freedom in the lineup that most had thought swamped by crowds a generation ago.
The psychological effect has been profound. From a vantage point I can recognise voices, while laughter and hoots dominate. In the water, a shared understanding prevails: Who's up? Who's next? A legrope is snapped and a board is careening towards the rocks. Someone catches a wave in, a guy jumping off breaks his line and they rescue the board before damage is done.
Would that have happened in a fully frothed pre-pandemic crowd where an 'every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost' mood takes hold?
I tell a pal just out of the water that the lockdown has been extended and he punches the air. He runs a simple program and the benefits outweigh the restrictions. For him, the good times are right now, and that is a sentiment you won't find expressed in any media outlet.
It might sound heartless to find joy in a time of suffering, but every pandemic and plague has unintended side effects. An extreme example: After the Black Death plagues in Europe caused mass fatalities, wages for workers and peasants went up, lifting millions out of abject misery. It's humbling to admit that we are mere pawns of historical forces. For good or ill.
Localism is a potent evolutionary force. Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar discovered from primate and human studies that there is a “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”. In short, our hunter-gatherer brain can only recognise and consider around 150 people. The implications for surf localism are profound. Faces not recognised means their interests are not considered. When the crowd consists mostly of people who recognise and consider each others interests, the dynamic becomes largely co-operative, as opposed to impersonal, aggressive, competitive.
Anyone who has paddled out at the Superbank will attest to this phenomenon.
Modern surfing bears little resemblance culturally to its Hawaiian progenitors. The “ocean belongs to everyone, maaan” crew would not fare well in Polynesian society. Their version of localism was as brutal as it was elegant. As part of the kapu system, good spots belonged to the chief/priest class and the rabble were barred from surfing there. Breaking kapu could be a capital offence.
Localism nowadays is much softer. And really, who could defend violence and aggression in the surf? It's only legitimate defence is the same one Winston Churchill used to defend democracy: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”.
Localism, with all its regional differences, is still the only thing that works. It's a barrier to entry, a kind of soft kapu, a hedge against chaos. And when outside forces intervene to create isolated surfing communities, a form of utopia.
Localism keeps me away from Pipeline, Padang Padang, the Canary Islands, California, Burleigh Heads. Or at the least encourages me to be on my very best behaviour if I do paddle out.
What will happen to localism on the other side? When lockdowns cease. We want to move again, to travel and experience novel or beloved surf experiences. Others will too. New Zealand has moved to restructure tourism hotspots away from reliance on servicing visitors, but it seems unlikely Australia will follow suit. A bounce back is more likely. Which means the lucky few who experienced the return to a golden age via governmental localism will have to learn to overcome the primal/evolutionary urges which shape our interactions with strangers in the surf.